King Kong (2005) — Peter Jackson’s overly long ape tale

“There’s only creature in the world that could have done this… the Abominable Snowman!”

PoolMan’s rating: Is this where I put my “barrel full of monkeys” joke?

PoolMan’s review: Picture this, true believers. Peter Jackson, whose previous film credits include a movie about drunken Muppets and a horror/comedy featuring Michael J Fox talking to ghosts, is handed the keys to what could potentially be the biggest, most expensive, and most popular fantasy franchise of the last century. I don’t know what kind of Faustian deal he cut, but not only did he do Lord of the Rings with tremendous respect and love for the source material, but he made the studio more than a billion dollars in the process.

For his encore? A movie about a giant ape.

Call me far too interested in Middle-earth lore, but when I heard Jackson was going to delay filming The Hobbit so that he could do his dream project, a recreation of King Kong, I was more than a little sour. After the rush of quality fantasy movies that the modern Lord of the Rings trilogy was, I was astounded that we wouldn’t be getting the prequel when I so clearly wanted it. Come on Peter, aren’t you listening to the concerns of the common Canadian?

But a dream is a dream, and Jackson’s longtime desire was to remake the 1933 classic King Kong. Armed with an effects house that grew in the course of six years to become one of the biggest and best in the entire world and a reputation the size of a giant mountain ape, it’s no surprise he got what he wanted. And the love for his new project clearly shows.

King Kong is enormous in every way. First off, it’s long. In the three-hour range. Personally, I think this is a big detractor here… in trying to tell a truly emotional tale with Kong, Jackson takes forever building up the story. It’s fully an hour into the movie before the characters even make landfall on Skull Island, Kong’s long lost home, and it’s a few minutes beyond that before we finally get any kind of glimpse at the ape himself. In fact, I literally might recommend showing up 45 minutes late to the theatre. The early character development is fine, but it’s just so unnecessary. Even without the leading hour, you’d still recognize all the archetypal characters well enough to just get on with the good bits, and the emotional impact of the movie all comes from the relationship between the ape and the woman anyways, why all the melodrama?

But the scale after that point never disappoints. Everything about the movie is huge. Every single living thing on the island is enormous. There’s gigantic leeches, insects, bats… it’s like every single bioform simply evolved to be about a thousand times more massive than it should be (and on such a relatively small island, that makes perfect sense, right? Right?). There are dinosaurs of four types, wild humans who have serious flaws in their dental and eye care plans, and of course, one gigantic gorilla with a penchant for beating the ever-loving snot out of pretty much all the above.

Of course, such an island would be the perfect place to film a movie, right? That’s the premise of King Kong, that wild eyed filmmaker Carl Denham (played by a woefully miscast Jack Black, more on that later) comes upon a map leading to an island that would give Jurassic Park a run for its money (how, exactly, is never clarified). Being depression-era New York and with his options closing rapidly around him, Denham charters a dingy boat to set sail for the island with his newly discovered starlet, Ann Darrow (played wonderfully by Naomi Watts), his writer Jack (Adrian Brody), and a slew of red shirted sailors. And I’m not talking uniform colours here, people.

Denham manages to get this motley crew to the mysterious Skull Island, where the ship runs aground. They decide to go ahead and film while the sailors work to free the boat, and end up running into the locals, who decide that Ann would make a perfect hostess gift for the enormous Kong. She is left to be sacrificed, and the ape obligingly runs away with her, obviously intent on re-gifting her away to Mrs T-Rex down the road.

Of course, logic takes a flying leap out the window at this point, as not just a few but ALL of the crew volunteer to go after Ann, and on more than one occasion (Naomi IS a beautiful woman, don’t get me wrong, but let’s be honest here, I think three guys died just during her capture, and sailors are a superstitious sort). This turns into basically an elimination film as the men race to save Ann, who is meanwhile perfectly safe in the company of Kong, who spends all his screen time pounding other giant terrors to defend his new friend.

Eventually, as anyone who saw the original 73 years ago will tell you (and the only person on staff who could do that is Sue) they capture Kong and the showbiz crazy Denham tries to put him on display. Naturally, he gets loose and rampages around Manhattan, culminating in a battle against several biplanes on the top of the Empire State Building.

What makes this new King Kong work is a simple concoction of two things: Kong fighting all comers in exciting battles (and to a lesser extent, the sailors making their way across the island) and Naomi Watt’s wonderful performance. It sounds funny, but the screen chemistry between Ann and Kong is quite charming, especially early on when Ann does vaudeville routines to calm Kong down, and you can see the big ape pretending not to laugh. Maybe it’s just me, but I found parts like that (and later on the frozen pond in New York) to be some of the best parts of the movie.

But where Watts is great, the rest of the cast is so-so. Adrian Brody is fine, but the character of Jack Driscoll could have been played by nearly anyone. And that’s keeping in mind that the character (a love interest for a woman who seems to love a three story gorilla) isn’t entirely necessary. The sailors are also adequate, but they’re incredibly stereotyped and corny (especially Jimmy, Choy, and Lumpy, played by a totally unrecognizable Andy Serkis, aka Gollum). The major casting problem is Jack Black.

Black’s take on Denham has the wild eyed and deceitfully single-minded part down pat, but he’s just not serious enough. At moments where you think he’s going to be serious, he’s yukking it up, and at points that should be funny he’s staring steely eyed into the distance trying to be plain-faced. But he still somehow looks like he’s trying to be funny. I just found his whole performance totally distracting. I like Jack Black and all, but he just wasn’t the guy for the part.

Anyways, I’ve gone way overtime here. If you read this while Kong’s still on the big screen, I highly recommend you take in the full sized experience. But take your time… you can definitely stand to arrive a few minutes late. If you’re at home, hey, that’s what the little button marked ‘FF’ is for (no matter what Drew tells you, it does NOT stand for ‘Fantastic Four’).

Didja notice?

  • Island pole vaulting – the next Olympic sport!
  • Kong bites many creatures (humans included) but never eats them. This is because Jackson wanted him to be vegetarian like real gorillas (unlike his film predecessors)
  • Denham mentions wanting to cast someone named “Fay” as Ann Darrow, but is talked out of it. Fay Wray played Darrow in the 1933 version of the movie.
  • That “Watts” rhymes with “Hots”?
  • That’s admittedly a handy way to see if you’d look good with a moustache.
  • One of the sailors does the Wilhelm scream when he’s knocked off the cliff by a brontosaurus.
  • NOT a movie for arachnophobes.
  • So… the pilot relents and doesn’t shoot at Kong when he can see Ann, but if she’s out of sight it’s open season?
  • A brand new Chevrolet for $445… ah, those were the days.
  • The giant ape skeleton… maybe there was a female Kong before, and that’s why the islanders sacrifice all the women to Kong.
  • The army’s pretty cavalier about just shooting away in NYC, aren’t they?
  • Wow, think Lumpy modeled off of Popeye, there?

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